A few feet away, at a hastily cleared table, there sat New York's newest royalty -- La La Vazquez, reality star vixen and wife of Carmelo, and Kiyan, their adorable toddler son, and whenever the boy called out, "Da Da!" you could almost hear Billups' heart break a little bit more.
It's so easy to shrug off the human element, the collateral damage, especially when the people involved rake in more money than most of us could make in nine lives. The dream Anthony plotted and shrewdly orchestrated came to fruition Wednesday, as he bid Denver adieu, pulled on a New York Knicks uniform and embraced Broadway stardom. Good for him, coming home in such dramatic fashion, good for La La and the VH1 cameras already trailing her; good for Knicks fans salivating in their Garden seats.
Billups? He's the wild card in the mega blockbuster, three-club trade that shook the Nuggets and shredded a Knicks team that was entertaining and energetic and built to survive, maybe, the playoffs' first round. Billups has been around and around the block -- Boston, Toronto, Denver, Minnesota, Detroit, Denver again and forevermore, or so he hoped -- and he graciously said all the right things about being excited for the challenge, and admitted it would be silly to break up the cohesiveness he and Anthony share.
"This is a huge day for 'Melo," Billups said, tellingly, at a press conference before the Knicks beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 114-108. Sure enough, at that very moment, Kiyan again hollered "Da Da!" -- words that made Anthony grin wider than seemed possible. More flashes from the cameras. More fidgeting from Billups.
Who knows, it could turn into a swell ending for Billups. The Knicks likely won't win it all this year, no matter what the swarms of folks descending on the corner of 33rd street and utopia were babbling, but with two bona fide superstars on board, they're already better than the pushing-.500 team that pulled into the All-Star break. The second half of the season ought to be a blur of Billups riffing off the screen-and-roll and 'Melo spreading the floor and Amar'e Stoudemire knocking down shots in the paint. Add a little defense into the mix -- there were shocking flashes of it Wednesday night, proving it's in the Knicks' DNA somewhere -- and springtime at the Garden could be a whole bunch of crazy fun.
Eventually Billups will allow his mind to wrap around the sweet possibilities. Eventually he'll shed some of the sadness that hit when his own world tilted. Winning can mend an awful lot, even a broken heart. But for now, pardon Billups if he isn't singing, "I'm coming home" with 'Melo and Diddy.
While Anthony was scheming his way out of the west, Billups -- born and raised in Denver, as Coloradoan as John Denver -- was already home, living his own dream. He figured he'd retire a Nugget, move into Denver's front office, the perfect scenario for a Rocky Mountain boy who loved playing full-time dad to his three girls. He moved his family to his hometown on the range in 2008, told them it would be the last time they'd have to deal with new schools, new friends, new lives. We rip professional athletes all the time when they're disinterested fathers or wandering husbands. Billups' tears are a fresh reminder that not all fit into the box reserved for scoundrels.
"Oh it was hard, hardest thing I've ever had to do," Billups said quietly, once the mad scene at the Garden had settled. "I had to tell my girls that daddy was traded, that he was leaving to play across the country. I told them it wasn't my choice, that nothing could be done about it. I had to go. It wasn't a happy scene."
This is a man who once turned down an opportunity to play with Team USA because he had promised his wife, Piper, that he'd be a stay-at-home dad for a summer and help take care of Cenaiya, their new baby. Bonding over diaper changes and late-night feeds meant more than another notch on his illustrious career.
He's a rare bird, loyal and not afraid to do what real men do, which is why Denver executives Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri did all they could to keep Billups out of the trade Anthony strong-armed the Nuggets into making. It was impossible -- the Knicks insisted on the addition of Billups, Denver needed to get max value -- and so it was that Kroenke called Billups and his family to apologize, profusely and honestly, for causing so much heartache.
How often do you hear team executives admit such a thing? Billups, said Kroenke, was "Denver basketball," the ultimate compliment. "They were stand-up guys through everything," Billups said. "They're a great organization. I'll miss them, but I'm a Knick now and I'll do my best to make New York fans proud."
He was dazzling Wednesday night, running with precision a team he barely knew. 'Melo got the love, the NY-theme songs and chants, the frothing standing ovations. The usual glitterati were in the house, Chris Rock and Matthew Modine and Woody Allen all here to witness the beginning of beautiful magic between Stoudemire and Anthony. Courtside seats went for a recession-busting $6,755, and there probably isn't a soul who'd say they weren't worth it.
When Stoudemire fouled out, it was Anthony who nailed the Knicks' final two baskets to seal the win, a clutch, driving dunk followed by a tough short jumper in the lane as fans chanted "Melo! Melo!" for what felt like the hundredth time. Anthony had 27 points and 10 rebounds in his debut.
But it was the 34-year-old point guard said to be slightly past his prime who flipped the Garden back a decade, back to when the Knicks were the best show in town. There was a highlight-of-the-night moment when Billups swerved around the Bucks' John Salmons, dribbled between Carlos Delfino's legs and wobbled through the paint to put the Knicks up by seven. Billups finished with 21 points and 8 assists and a typically perfect 12 of 12 from the free-throw line, a fine beginning that made it easy to forget that the Knicks gave up so much size and youth.
"It was a good day, a really good day. I'm excited about everything," Billups said after the game, looking and sounding completely different than the man who hours earlier seemed so morose. "Just to get out there on the floor it's good, it's our safe haven and it's where we let everything else go in the world. For the fans to embrace me and Carmelo the way they did, it just felt good."
It was as if the crowd's passion and adoration had been bottled and then shot into Billups' veins via IV. "I'm not disappointed at all about being a Knick," he said now. "I'm excited and I respect this franchise. It wasn't just about being a Denver Nugget or being at home. Of course I'm from there, it's not easy to get that call and go home and face your three kids and say daddy's leaving. As far as the Knicks, I'm definitely excited about being a Knick."
If this is a glimpse of the future, if 'Melo can play Robin to Stoudemire's Batman, and Billups runs the floor and hits his usual share of 3-pointers, oh my, it will be such a nice way to clear the cesspool once and for all. It might even make Knicks fans stop watching for James Dolan's pants to spontaneously burst into a ball of fire.
It's four years and counting since the Knicks president took a question from the New York media. He opened Wednesday's press conference, said a few nice words about the new acquisitions, then told another ludicrous tale that launched a thousand eye rolls. Apropos of nothing, Dolan started talking about Isiah Thomas, a friend of Dolan's, a good friend wink wink, who was absolutely positively not involved in the blockbuster trade.
"Fiction in somebody's mind," Dolan fumed, to a room packed with people who know the truth. But whatever, let Thomas whisper that it was he, and not Donnie Walsh, who deserves credit for bringing Anthony back to New York. The Knicks' Machiavellian front office, and Thomas' Svengali hold over Dolan, are mere sideshows to the real show.
The last time the Knicks won a playoff game it was April 2001, a different New York, a different world. Anthony says he was "Born in Brooklyn, manufactured in Baltimore," and he plotted his escape to New York with the shrewdness of a Wall Streeter. Even he called the lunacy behind it "the Melo Drama." Now get ready for a new wave of "There's nothing you can't do! These lights will inspire you!" Get ready for 'Melo overload.
A few minutes after Anthony signed the three-year, $64.47 million contract extension he wouldn't agree to in Denver, VH1 announced the planned filming of a docu-series tentatively titled, "La La's Full Court," a reality show that will chronicle La La and 'Melo as they traipse through Manhattan. For her husband's NY debut, La La wore elaborately fringed, towering heels from Christian Louboutin that matched exactly the bright blue on the Knicks' jersey. Photographers snapped pictures of her shoes as often as they snapped Anthony's jump shot. She was front and center, impossible to ignore. Just as Billups hated leaving his wife and kids, Anthony mapped his career to align with his wife's.
"It's the best city in the world. We're both thrilled to be here," La La said, as she waited for Carmelo to emerge from the locker room. Before the game Anthony spoke about riding Stoudemire's "coattails," said he was ready to bring "physicality back" and expected everyone to "play hard defense." Sure, OK, pardon the eye rolls. Anthony is a tremendous offensive punch, a perfect harmonizer with his pal Amar'e, but he's never been inclined to bust it on D.
But just imagine if Anthony is so jazzed to be back in New York, he adds a dash of defense to his extraordinary offensive touch. Imagine if Stoudemire's knees hold and Billups journeys a few years back at the point and the Garden's revitalization under the thumb of Walsh continues to bloom.
"At the end of the day, I think New York needed a moment like this," Anthony had said before the game. And sure enough, his wingman smiled. Chauncey Billups might just learn to love this trade.